COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Does the iPhone have call quality issues?

When I first began using my iPhone 5, I occasionally experienced static and momentary dropouts in my calls. Some of those I spoke with commented that my voice sounded garbled, robotic or unintelligible. On a few occasions I’d dial a call and it would show it was connected, but there was silence on both ends of the line and no ringing at my end. I would have to call back two or three times to connect, all in areas with strong cellular coverage.

I attributed some of the problems to my Bluetooth headset, an old but trusty Plantronics Voyager. I tried another headset and it seemed to be better for a while, but then I began experiencing the problems again. Could it be Verizon’s LTE digital network? To answer that question, I began using an iPhone 5 from AT&T and experienced similar problems, but to a lesser extent. So I started asking others I know who use the iPhone 5. Nearly every one of the half-dozen Verizon users I spoke with experienced some of these problems. About half of the AT&T users had the problem.

So next I checked on Apple Forums, a good source of up-to-the-minute issues. It’s the first place that many Apple users go to get questions answered or to report problems. While it’s difficult to judge how widespread a particular problem is, because you can generally find someone who has any problem imaginable, it’s a good source of learning the specific problems individuals encounter. And by the number of postings, you can judge if it’s an isolated issue or actually more widespread.

What did I find? Many comments and complaints about the same issue. Here are some representative examples:

“Got the new iPhone 5 and have bad phone call quality. The recipient of the call seems to be able to hear me OK, but their voice either isn't there or drops out or sounds grainy like when you have bad cell reception. Many times, the calls have just not connected. I know that my cell reception and the recipient's cell reception were excellent.”

“I've had the same issues with iPhone 5 call quality. I am with Verizon and it's very difficult to hear/understand people on the other end of the phone. It sounds static and robotic, however they seem to be able to hear my voice very clearly. I had the iPhone 4S and had no such problems.”

“I have a Verizon iPhone 5 with poor voice call quality. It sounds digitized, especially with another Verizon call. Turning LTE off makes no difference. I am going back to my iPhone 4 tomorrow as that I cannot hear/understand most calls.”

And from MacRumors, another good source:

“Both [iPhone 5s] suffer from poor sound-call quality. Sometimes it just sounds really muffled and other times the person sounds robotic.”

“I'm not satisfied with the Verizon's iPhone 5's call quality. I've been going back to Apple several times and am on my second phone replacement from Apple. The call quality is choppy, sound goes in and out and the most annoying part is there are times a loud booming metallic echoing sound that drowns the call out. Apple says that they can't figure out the problem yet."

At this point, it’s difficult to know the exact source of the problem. It could be the iPhone 5 itself, the LTE networks or something else. Apple is using an entirely new echo canceling design that could be exacerbated by the headphones. I have contacted Apple and Verizon and am waiting for their response. I’ll keep you informed of what I learn. Two executives from two different headphone manufacturers have confirmed to me off the record that there is a problem with the iPhone 5 that affects the performance of their products.

Which brings me to another question that a reader of last week’s column asked: Is it wise to buy a new product when it first comes out?

While I’m a bad one to ask, because new products are so appealing to me, and I want to be able to cover the latest gadgets in this column, it’s probably best to wait for a few months before buying.

With the complexity of today’s products, it’s rare that a company can identify every conceivable issue before the product is shipped. The competitive pressure is so intense that it reduces testing time, and it’s inevitable that new problems will be found after the product goes on sale. A lot more will be learned from the millions sold, than from a thousand or fewer used for testing.

That’s why many products are designed to be updated over the air or through a connection to the computer. With the fierce competition and short product lives, products are rushed out, often prematurely, and the users are given the job to find the bugs.

So don’t do as I do — do what’s logical and wait three or four months before buying.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer" published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others; holds 30 patents; and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Baker can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Baker's blog is blog.philipgbaker.com, and his website is philipgbaker.com.


New iOS app from Hotwire

I’ve been trying out Hotwire, a new app for the iPhone from hotwire.com. Hotwire, the company, which launched in 2000, is one of most popular discount travel booking sites for airline tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars. It's known for offering discounts without disclosing the supplier, much like the approach Priceline takes. Its new app, however, concentrates on finding just hotels almost anywhere in the world.

The app is designed to cater to the traveler who needs to find a room quickly, and especially at the last minute. From my experience, by booking last minute, you may be able to get better savings because hotels are willing to fill that empty room at a deep discount. Hotels are also more willing to offer better discounts than their published rates because their name is not disclosed before the booking is made.

I found the app to be extremely quick to use and usually found a wide choice of hotels and prices. To use, simply open the app, enter the date of your stay, and it will find hotels near your current location or a location entered. Hotwire claims one of its advantages is a huge inventory of rooms, and that’s what I generally found. Hotels that meet your request are displayed on a map or list view along with their star category, customer ratings and price. The challenge is to find one with the star rating you want that has a high customer rating and low price.

I didn’t try it extensively, but did use it in the Bay Area in the Northern Peninsula area. I chose a four-star hotel for $150 that turned out to be a Marriott with a $279 rate listed online. The app is free from the iTunes store, and it’s worth a try if you’re a frequent traveler and are not loyal to a particular hotel chain.

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